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Anti-Muslim bigotry tarnishes the legacy of Sir Roger Scruton

British Muslims are entitled to feel alarmed by the unqualified praise being doled out to Scruton since his death
British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton is pictured at a conference in Prague in 2012 (AFP)

Are Muslims right to be worried about their future in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Britain? On the basis of the adulation being handed out to Conservative writer Sir Roger Scruton, who died of cancer on Sunday, I think they have very good reason to be concerned.

The eulogies are overwhelming. Columnist Melanie Phillips described him as “Britain’s greatest contemporary philosopher” in The Times, which also gave Scruton a generous two-page obituary. In The Spectator, Douglas Murray said the philosopher “seemed bigger than the age”, while Toby Young in the Daily Mail called him “a prophet who was never properly acknowledged in his own country”.

High praise from Johnson

They paint a picture of a great man and supporter of free speech vilified by the Liberal establishment for unfashionable Conservative views. 

Most striking of all was Johnson’s message on Twitter following news of Scruton’s death: “We have lost the greatest modern conservative thinker - who not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully.”

In books and articles, he painted a lurid, ideological and error-ridden portrait of Islam and Muslims. He was also prone to wild and insulting remarks about Arabs

I met Scruton from time to time and occasionally attended meetings of his Conservative Philosophy Group, which brought together politicians, writers and intellectuals - including Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher. 

I agreed with his denunciations of modern architecture. His book in defence of fox-hunting is a masterpiece. His lonely journeys behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s to keep alive the flame of liberty might well have cost him his academic career back in the UK.

And at his best, he could write like a dream. I have beside my desk a much-thumbed copy of Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought. I referred to it again and again when I was political correspondent for The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph. 

But there is no doubt that Scruton was an ignorant bigot when it came to Islam.

Supporting far-right leaders

In books and articles, he painted a lurid, ideological and error-ridden portrait of Islam and Muslims. He was also prone to wild and insulting remarks about Arabs, despite presenting himself as an expert on what he called the “Arab mind”.

He celebrated Christian groups in Lebanon, but ignored the connections between Pierre Gemayel’s Phalange militia and 1930s fascism. He made sweeping generalisations about what he called the Palestinian “habit of living by violence” or what he regarded as the Arab tendency to place “vengeance before justice”. He was a poor man’s Bernard Lewis.

Towards the end of his life, Scruton became an admirer of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, telling the New Statesman that “the Hungarians were extremely alarmed by the sudden invasion of huge tribes of Muslims from the Middle East”.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks in Budapest on 9 January (AFP)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks in Budapest on 9 January (AFP)

As with so much of Scruton’s commentary on Muslims, this was nonsense. Huge tribes of Muslims never threatened to invade Hungary. What a lazy and insulting way to refer to Syrian refugees, many of whom were Christians, fleeing civil war. 

It’s relevant to remember that Scruton’s admiration for Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister is shared by other Conservatives. Tim Montgomerie, a senior adviser to Johnson in the run-up to the election, claimed that Johnson wanted to form a “special relationship” with Orban, who Montgomerie also praised for “interesting early thinking” on “the limits of liberalism”.

Journey towards an ugly Islamophobia 

Like others in the Johnson circle, Scruton derided the idea of Islamophobia, claiming it was “invented by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to stop discussion of a major issue which we are all worried about”. This was gibberish. The word was in currency before the Muslim Brotherhood even existed, and its modern usage was coined by the British think tank the Runnymede Trust

Scruton’s ignorant and bigoted views about Muslims and Islam don’t invalidate his other achievements. I’ve read many of his books, and he had a magical ability to capture the essence of a certain type of English Conservatism. 

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He could be a morally brave man who swam against the currents of his age. That is why it was so disappointing to witness, especially towards the end of his career, Scruton join a movement that views Islam as an enemy of the West.

Yet Johnson, without reservation, hailed Scruton as the “greatest modern Conservative thinker”. I can’t accept this.

Yes, he defended Conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was part of a historic battle against Communism and Soviet Russia. But he was also part of the journey towards an ugly Islamophobia that has disfigured the modern Conservative Party.

By all means, celebrate Sir Roger Scruton. But don’t forget his malign role in giving comfort to bigots driven by an ignorant contempt for one of the world’s great religions. British Muslims are entitled to feel alarmed by the unqualified praise being doled out to Scruton by so many Conservatives since he died.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne
Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.